“3 inches above the floor, man in the box wants to burn my soul.”
Y’know, Dark Souls really was this metaphorical bag of Doritos the world wanted to snack on. An irresistible formula that many love the taste of, but no one can fully emulate in the correct way. We’ve had different locales, people extracting specific parts of the original flavor and cutting the portions in half, or in the case of today’s title Hellpoint, just seeing if ASDA’s American-Style Tortilla Chips cover the same bases.
This is the debut title from French-Canadian studio Cradle Games, a team of veterans who formed in early 2015, bringing the idea of Hellpoint to the masses on Kickstarter a year later. One successful Kickstarter later, the game did the rounds at various conventions, along with being a part of [email protected]’s recent Game Fest extravaganza. You play as a being born of the new age, a melding between procreation and the digital forefront that we’re all afraid of. 3D printed into a pool of ooze, you’re awoken from your sudden birth and pushed into Irid Novo, a strange space station that’s in the midst of completely breaking down. Spurred on by the voice of your creator, The Author, you now have to find a way off this station… I think.
Alright, let’s keep Dark Souls on the brain for a second here because there’s a lot we need to unpack, and a fair chunk lies in what generally appeals in the Souls series. Difficulty aside, there’s also the execution of the story, the locations, the set pieces, the general vibe one gets from the areas they provide, the PvP— it’s a lot of different things that make this work and when it comes to the emulators, from your Surges to your Sinners to your Salt & Sanctuarys, they only focus on one or two of these elements. Hellpoint isn’t interested in merely making things tough for you, however. No, the game has a really strong theory on how the Souls series works and how they can lure the player in with those challenging fights and well-deserved victories. It’s not just being told to “git gud” that’s on the line either, you also have the delight of figuring out what happened to this world with a friend in co-op.
That’s right, this is one of the first games inspired by Dark Souls to also include a co-op focus, and not just for bosses! The game allows for you to carry a partner along for the entirety of the game, from the first boss to the finish! Not only is this a surprising addition, but it’s also a welcome improvement that realistically doesn’t mix things up too much— a burden for many a Dark Souls-inspired title, but there’ll be more on that later.
Honestly, the first few hours of Hellpoint harbor some exceptionally strong first impressions. The mystery peaks at the beginning, but it does stay there for quite some time, especially when the Author is introduced. While the writing is dragged down by some horrendously pretentious moments, along with no actual standout characters, there’s still an air to the game that’s alluring. Hell, even the combat isn’t that egregious at first. There’s a fair few fights at the beginning that can leave you winning by the skin o’ yer teeth, with a lot of weapons to choose from. Naturally, you’ll have to level up your skills in order to wield some of these items, which include “Reflex”, “Cognition”, “Foresight”, and “Strength”… you really couldn’t think of a fancy word for “Strength”, huh? Admittedly, this is one of those incremental changes that fall right into the silly pile.
Not to digress too terribly soon, but a lot of Hellpoint‘s writing seems like it’s trying too hard to sound smart or different. It’s not “poise”, it’s “tenacity”. It’s not “Energy Recharge Rate”, it’s “Leech”. While it’s a small thing to make a case about, this really does affect what the world is supposed to be, especially when one of the main enemy factions are labelled as “Thespians”. In what mutated and transgression of a world would we live in where a word to describe an actor or actress is used to describe a large disembodied hand that screams and shoot phlegm-filled balls of blood at you?
Hellpoint is pretentious, there’s no two ways about it. The way characters speak, the items in-game that you’ll be wielding, their context within the world, what exactly happened to this space station? It’s all lost in this sea of big words and attempting to sound more clever than it actually is. Nothing is explained directly, it’s always a case of “oh, you wouldn’t understand, this is a group chat reserved exclusively for the demigods”… they say as I destroy all of them by repeatedly slashing their ankles with a bone blade.
The game also features “ghosts”, and not in the way From Software designed it. If you die in an area, or maybe even in a boss fight, then an NPC version of yourself will start patrolling near where you left your Soul— I mean, “Axions”, your leveling up materials. It’s a decent challenge, and it’s not something that you’d immediately assume is unfair, due to the reward of a health potion refill if you beat them.
Despite these atrocious attempts at diverging from normal writing, Hellpoint started off phenomenally strong. The combat has weight, the telegraphing on enemy attacks is visible and animated appropriately, and the environmental design at the start helps ease you into this exceptionally hostile station. As soon as you beat the second boss however, the game opens up, and I mean opens up. From here on out, every single new map is a diatribe of walkways, areas with no actual symmetry or focus to them, just random paths that proclaim “inter-connectivity” the same way a serial killer would proclaim “self-defense!”. The Sohn District, the Arisen Dominion, the Alma Mater offices, they don’t feel like places you can navigate, much like how the first half of Anor Londo in Dark Souls is a collective shrug of shoulders when it comes to how you’re supposed to traverse it.
While Hellpoint never reaches the same perverse architecture, it’s an odd anomaly where the maps feel like strenuous mazes yet only have one clear way to the exit. Anything that could be considered a worthy gift is rarely found off the beaten path, and a lot of the time the game will simply grant you powerful items for mere completions. Hell, at the time of writing you can currently kill the first NPC you come across, take his immensely powerful armor, reload the game, and he’s alive once more with a quest available.
When it comes to exploits, crashes or glitches, Hellpoint has more than its fair share. The hit detection on a lot of the reflex-based weapons tends to only work every other time, the game will sometimes decide that you’re no longer allowed to use your ranged weapons anymore and force a reset, and online is a gamble. Credit where credit is due, you can explicitly state your intentions of what you plan to do in-game, whether it be PvE or PvP. If it would actually work, we’re halfway there.
It’s not just that the match codes are frequently met with invalidity and failed connections. It’s not just that the game doesn’t tell you that you can only post an invite to your world on walls with a handprint, and never tells you if your summon sign has disappeared. If you manage to get past all of this, then you have to pray to the Lovecraftian unspeakable horrors in the black sky that holds our fates that the frame rate doesn’t dip into single digit territory… usually under 5. Hellpoint easily has some of the worst multiplayer of any game released this year. The time it takes to sync is atrocious, there’s no warning for a failed connection to your world, which’ll usually be the reason for your sign disappearing without your knowledge, and the PvP? I wasn’t even able to try out the PvP because I couldn’t connect to anyone.
The biggest problem comes from how combat is portrayed in the later stages. You’ll start fighting bigger dudes in bigger armor, and stunlocking is impossible against anything that can dodge roll. With how temperamental the hit detection can be at times, you’ll usually end up spamming your attacks, and if one of those repeated attacks hit? Your enemy will immediately side step and get a free hit on you while you’re in the next animation. The combat is broken down even further when the camera starts misbehaving, especially in the boss fights. Given that this is inspired by Dark Souls, it’s no surprise that every boss will be eight times the size of your puny 3-D printed body, and to mitigate this you can target individual limbs for attack. The big problem arises when you decide to go in for the kill via a melee weapon, and the camera will inexplicably decide to pan down.
There’s also status effects and debuffs, none of which are appropriately explained in any capacity inside or out of the game, save for Radiation, which caps your health. There’s one debuff however, which increases your FOV to an abnormal amount, which can absolutely devastate you in the later stages of a boss fight. Whether or not it’s intentional, it’s an exceptionally frustrating thing to work around.
The absolute worst thing this game has going for it though, is the platforming. Hellpoint has decided to try and one-up From Software’s infamously egregious platforming by giving you dedicated controls instead of tying it to the B button. This leads into the game getting carried away with jumping puzzles, most of which entirely fail because of the two-gear speeds the movement is inflicted with. If you jump normally, you’ll do a weak hop towards the next platform. If you decide to do a running jump, however, your character will immediately lurch forward with full strength. There’s no in-between nor any prominent in-air control ability. It’s sticky, it’s awkward, and it all comes to a teeth-grinding climax in what is arguably the game’s worst section, with its only saving grace being that this is optional.
At some point, you can head outside of the Irid Novo, and into the cold dead of space, all while basking in the view of a black hole. You’ll need a functional space suit that you can find in the only other space section of the game. Unrealistic exploration expectations aside, once you do find this space suit and craft it, you’re then tasked to complete jumping puzzles and platforming… in zero gravity… and there’s also fall damage… in space.
The entire second half of Hellpoint reeks of unpolished gristle. Lacking in any sort of energy or cohesion, the games open-ended nature can only extend the player’s patience so far. Soon enough, you’ll reach a brick wall in the form of a boss pulling the manipulate the FOV card, and you’ll be forced to untangle the unrendered mess of Christmas wires that is Hellpoint’s map. There’s one path that goes on for quite a while, a winding slide down these demolished block of… I don’t know, apartments? The game doesn’t really fuse Irid Novo as both a living space for the normal humans that go through the 3-D photocopiers, and one where there’s giant guards and beings rolling around. Sure, the maps are sprawling, vast and deep valleys of H.R. Giger’s dreams— just barely, but even then, this is more in favor of the latter. I guess a lot of these humans really don’t mind living in barren voids with no furniture.
The game has you precariously fall down this ruined set of flats in an awkward 3-D platforming section that, like all of the platforming sections, overstays its welcome. Once you reach the end, you come to a door which is locked with a combination unlike the rest. It’s a simple 5-digit lock, unlike the random codes of 2 separate sets of 4 digits you might find around the map, with those corresponding to some silly cryptic puzzle in order to unlock rooms that reward you with… well, nothing. No end-game content, no secret bosses that test your might, just a few items and maybe a platforming puzzle.
Anyway, if this door is locked with a different set of numbers from the rest, then not only is the way to find the combination going to be tricky, but surely the reward is fantastic? Well, for starters, the code is “12345”. No, really, the password is actually what most grandmothers use for phishing websites. After such a trial, your reward is just as meager— 3 dead bodies in bags, two of which are implied to be children, a note emanating that “2 days before retirement” energy, and your character supposedly saying “sad scene”. I just…
I’ve hesitated to talk about the story thus far, because it really is the flavorless cherry on top of this aimless sundae. The aforementioned lack of a middle ground between complex metaphors and knowing exactly what your stakes are in all of this is frustrating, and there’s not a lot driving you to complete it for the most part. Until you collect 100% of the discoveries, you’re not allowed to take on the final boss, so until then you’re stuck repeatedly smacking your head against this obtuse wall that won’t let up.
Is Dark Souls the same? No, not really. Quest-critical items and plot continuations were always approached with an air of importance around them, and there was always an NPC on the visible path to explain things, even if they spoke in obtuse phrasing. Here, you’re lucky if you even get a vague implication of the stakes, or an NPC that even wants to amuse you with the thought of what might be going on here.
The only NPCs that aren’t behind either a jumping puzzle, or an item the game forgot to tell you about, are one who wants you to help him get to his basement, and an out-of-place Native American type who gives you a single gesture. You’re left at the mercy of abstract stupidity, a conga line of being led by the nose with various glimpses into a land that may or may not have dabbled with immortality, may or may not have slaughtered everyone who didn’t abide by their rules. Is not knowing the full extent of the fate of this space station fine? It would be if we knew anything beyond “shit’s fucked”.
As for the finale, it’s underwhelming. Leaving behind any sort of grandeur, the final boss fight preaches some left-field meta commentary on the point of playing video games, and after you beat it you’re immediately put into New Game+, with an NPC proclaiming your futile efforts. Yeah, they’re futile, alright. Playing a game for 20 hours only to be told that nothing really matters because I have to play the game for another 20 hours, and be subject to more broken boss fights with awful cameras and platforming with no in-air control, but this time everyone has more health… God, I love video games.
The nicest thing you can say about Hellpoint is that it tries. It tries too many things at the same time with next to no focus on how to mesh them all together correctly, but it tries. Wildly different environments that eventually mean nothing in the grand scheme of things, wildly different ambitions beyond how others have attempted to emulate the patented From Formula. In the end however, the game falls over itself trying to blow your mind and your socks off at the same time.
In short, it’s another Dark Souls tribute, marching towards the abyssal doom these worlds always possess. Just like the rest of ’em.
This review of Hellpoint was based upon the Xbox One version of the game. A review code was provided for this purpose.
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